Lost Souls Are Hothouse Flowers
Lost Souls are hothouse flowers — delicate, beautiful, fragile, and rare. Some require special attention. Some like to be left alone. Some thrive with lots of light while others prefer darkness. They are all very different and spectacular in their own ways.
There are droopy, weeping plants prone to fits of trembling (Dangley biticus-tremulus).
Some are afraid to grow at all (Timidus minitus) and others just can’t get properly motivated despite their best intentions to flower (Perhapsus laterum).
Some plants are continually sick with some fungus or another (Ickacus neglectum).
There is the Supra egosimo, which grows in uneven, angry bursts. If conditions are not exactly to its specifications, it releases a very foul odor.
There are self-destructive plants whose thorns turn inward, piercing the plants’ very stems (I. Destructus).
Some of the plants can only grow when throngs of people coo appreciatively at them. If they are not properly admired very regularly, they will die (Externita needeveria).
I have been all of these flowers at one time or another. Most often I am the Shaded melancholanata, which grows as best as it can inside a dark, zippered bag. Very few people have actually seen its flowers although they are rumored to be breathtaking. No one knows why it has become accustomed to the darkness; perhaps it was just always so.
It is important to note that all of these unusual plants do cross-pollinate. As a result, there are hothouses full of incomprehensible variations. Truly, there are too many to describe. They are challenging to tend to, but their potential for beauty is unlimited. With proper care, some of the most hopeless varieties offer velvety leaves, ethereal perfumes, and blossoms so rich with color they very nearly hum.
Which kind are you?
Lost Souls and Suicide
I’ve thought about killing myself many times. Maybe you have too. Hopefully I can convince us both that it’s not such a good idea.
For years, so-called “experts” have said that even the mention of suicide to someone who is himself suicidal is tantamount to pushing him off a ledge or helping him pull the trigger. I don’t believe that.
Having suicidal feelings from time to time is common. It’s crucial to talk about our feelings of hopelessness and desperation because there is no reason we have to go on feeling this way. If you share your darkest thoughts with other Lost Souls, you’ll find comfort in your similarities.
I’ve known for years that I’m not all here. Many creative types aren’t. According to Science News (May 1994), a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist conducted a study which concluded that “Artists suffer more than their share of depression, a tendency that may fuel their creativity while it shatters their personal lives.”
Many of our most cherished writers, artists, musicians, and poets have fallen victim to what has been called “excessive sensitivity.” In his work The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, A. Alvarez writes, “The casualty rate among the gifted seems all out of proportion, as though the nature of the artistic undertaking itself and the demands it makes had altered radically [during the twentieth century].” When Lost Souls suffer enough emotional pain, suicide becomes a tempting — and permanent — solution to every problem. Every Lost Soul on pages 16 and 17 chose to “solve” their problems this way. Add in the tendency to glorify and romanticize the act, and suicide’s appeal grows again.
In 1955 actor James Dean was only twenty-four when he slammed his Porsche into another car and died instantly. It’s widely believed that his “accident” was intentional, and I used to think this crash was just another garden-variety suicide. I may have been wrong about that, though.
Wrong because James Dean’s mechanic was with him in the car that day. If this was a suicide attempt, wouldn’t that mean Dean had no regard for the life of his mechanic? It’s possible, I guess, since suicidal people often lack regard for the lives they leave behind, but we’ll never really know.
Let’s say James Dean had lived through his car accident (and some people actually believe this, by the way), I suspect that it wouldn’t have been long before Death collected him in a bar fight, a drug overdose, or something else. Rather than suggesting this was an outright suicide, it is safer to say that James Dean was a “chronic suicide” instead. Chronic suicides are people who live very reckless lives because they actually want to die.
In death, Dean is glamorized, but in life he was, not to put too fine a point on it, something of an asshole. He abused alcohol and other drugs and had an explosive temper. It has been over forty-five years since his death and James Dean still gets fan mail.
If you ask me, those fans are wasting their stamps and their time. Dead is forever and, as far as I know, James Dean isn’t reading his mail. Right now he’s just a pile of bones in a box in a hole in Fairmont, Indiana. How glamorous.
Famous Suicides and What-Ifs ...
Vincent and Theo Van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh broke his younger brother’s heart. Over the years, Theo van Gogh supported Vincent financially and emotionally despite his own frailties and commitments. He adored Vincent and did everything in his power to further his brother’s art and his independence. Vincent had a long history of madness and, despite his brother’s efforts, he shot himself in the chest on July 27, 1890. He died two days later. Just three months after Vincent’s suicide, Theo, beside himself with grief, completely broke down. On January 25, 1891, he died in an asylum. According to Jan Hulsker’s book Vincent and Theo van Gogh: A Dual Biography, “In a lecture published by the Krsller-Müller Foundation in 1954, these words were devoted to Theo’s illness and death: ‘The doctor who treated him with great devotion, tried in vain to get his attention by reading to him an article ... about Vincent. The only interest he had was for the name Vincent. In the “history of illness” it says in the column “cause of disease: chronic illness, excessive exertion and sorrow.”’” Vincent’s selfish act had major repercussions on other lives.
On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath took milk and a plate of bread upstairs to her two children, Frieda and Nicholas. Then she returned to the kitchen, sealed the window and the door, and stuck her head in the gas oven. It was the last in a succession of suicide attempts. This one worked.
It was only a month after the publication of her critically acclaimed work The Bell Jar. Despite great successes throughout her life, Sylvia was plagued with self-doubt and bouts of serious depression. Occasionally she sought treatment for these episodes. Hospitalization, electric shock therapy, and psychiatric treatment were helpful, but it’s important to note that really effective antidepressant medications weren’t yet available.
A. Alvarez, a friend to Sylvia, doesn’t believe she actually wanted to die. Alvarez maintains that this suicide attempt was just another cry for help in a long series. It is an especially likely prospect since, as he explains in The Savage God, the au pair girl who found Sylvia’s body also found a note saying “Please call Dr.——,” and giving his telephone number. He writes, “This time ... there was too much holding her to life. Above all, there were the children: she was too passionate a mother to want to lose them or them to lose her.” But her crying wolf lost those children the most important person in their lives.
On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf placed a large stone in her pocket and walked into the River Ouse in Sussex, England. It was widely believed that her suicide was related to her distress over World War II, but that was not the case. The true cause is revealed to her husband, Leonard, in her suicide note:
I have the feeling I shall go mad. I hear voices and cannot concentrate on my work. I have fought against it, but cannot fight any longer. You have been so perfectly good. I cannot go on and spoil your life.
Virginia Woolf’s life had been riddled with illness and nervous breakdowns. Scholars believe that she feared this latest episode would be permanent. Leonard Woolf had been “perfectly good” to his wife. He cared for her during her illnesses and did his best to prevent future breakdowns, but, clearly, Virginia felt guilty for requiring so much care and attention. I imagine, however, that her husband was happy to comfort her and would have preferred that she live. Her assumption of her own lack of worth took away Leonard’s ability to help her.
The list of famous suicides goes on for miles. They left loved ones behind to grieve for them and much unfinished business to do. I understand that sometimes the love of friends and family doesn’t seem like enough in the face of so much pain. For me, the urge to die has been powerful, but the thought of leaving my mother and father behind to suffer such a loss keeps me hanging on by my fingernails.
These Lost Souls were hurting, but that doesn’t excuse their actions — especially in light of the fact that depression and other mental disorders were somewhat treatable at the time, and now much more so. No one in the throes of despair is thinking clearly. That’s why it’s so important to ask someone else for help.
I wonder what could have been if they had chosen to live. What incredible works of art have we missed out on because they chose to die? Sylvia Plath would be in her sixties today. Maybe she would still be writing. There are songs we’ll never get to hear, paintings we’ll never see, novels we can’t enjoy because their creators gave up.
Living is really hard, but death is forever. We’re all going to die eventually, so what’s your rush? Even if you think committing suicide will make you seem tragic and romantic and cool, you’ll never know what happened anyway. Don’t you want to know how your life was supposed to turn out? Wouldn’t you like to see what you’re made of?
John Kennedy Toole
When I told my friend Stephanie about The Lost Soul Companion project, she told me about John Kennedy Toole. He wrote her favorite book, A Confederacy of Dunces — a fantastically funny novel about a guy named Ignatius Reilly and his adventures in New Orleans. The work won Toole the Pulitzer Prize, but he didn’t live to see his success. Instead he died thinking he was an utter failure. I wish I could bring him back from the dead and show him what a contribution he made, but I can’t.
Ken Toole was born in New Orleans in 1937. Throughout his life he was very close to his mother, Thelma, who fostered in her son a love for learning and “high culture.” Ken was an unusually gifted child with an I.Q. of 133 as a first grader. He graduated from high school at age sixteen. At twenty he graduated from Tulane with honors in English and a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for graduate studies. In 1957 he matriculated at Columbia University, where he completed a two-year master’s literature program in just one year. He was a literature professor at Hunter College in Manhattan and then a faculty member at the University of Southwestern Louisiana until 1961, when he was drafted. In the army, he taught English at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. Surprisingly, his position afforded him his own private quarters and plenty of time to write. A Confederacy of Dunces resulted. After his discharge, Ken returned to New Orleans and immediately submitted his manuscript to Simon & Schuster for publication. Soon after, the publishing house sent a letter which was so encouraging that publication seemed imminent. But, according to New Orleans writer Dalt Wonk, the letter was merely the first in a disappointing series. In his two-part work “John Kennedy Toole’s Odyssey Among the Dunces,” Wonk described the events:
Over the next few months, other letters arrived from Simon & Schuster. Thelma knew because she usually picked up the mail. But Ken did not show them to her. “He wanted to spare me,” she said later, “for he knew they would grieve me.”
It was only after her son’s death that Thelma was to read the correspondence.
Robert Gottlieb, an editor with the publishing house, wanted extensive revisions, she said.
Thelma would hear Ken typing by the hour in his room.
As the months passed, Thelma says, the requests for changes continued.
Ken became frantic. His opportunity was fading. Thelma says his letters to Gottlieb took on a beseeching tone.
“My son got down on his knees and begged. He humbled himself before that man. He told Gottlieb he had poured his soul into the book.”
Wonk continued: “After two years of dickering, Thelma says, Gottlieb rejected the book.”
Ultimately, Ken gave up the search for a publisher. On January 20, 1969, he began a two-month-long journey. He drove to California, then Georgia — stopping to see the Hearst Mansion and the home of Flannery O’Connor — and, finally, to a wooded area in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he ran a garden hose from his tailpipe to one of his back windows. Three boys discovered his body. The car’s engine was still running.
Until recently, there was a tendency to blame the publishing industry for his death. Joel Fletcher was one of Ken Toole’s friends and has written a memoir about Ken and Thelma. Fletcher explained, “Robert Gottlieb has pretty much taken a bum rap in the story of Ken and Confederacy. The version that is ‘out there’ is Thelma’s much simplified and grossly unfair version.... Suffice it to say, there were really no villains in this story, only victims.”
Some scholars now suggest that Ken Toole’s disappointment was compounded by many other problems including his domineering mother, financial burdens, binge drinking, questions about his sexuality, and, as if those weren’t enough, the early signs of what might have been schizophrenia.
After his death, Thelma Toole decided to continue the search for a publisher. She succeeded nearly nine years later — thanks to the help of Walker Percy, an influential local novelist. In 1980, Louisiana State University published A Confederacy of Dunces, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Ken Toole left another novel, The Neon Bible, behind, but, had he lived, what else could he have offered us? I’m deeply saddened when I think of the body of work that died with John Kennedy Toole, and I know that things didn’t have to turn out this way.
I wish Ken Toole had had the support he needed back then, and, if I had known him, I would’ve tried to encourage less traditional thinking — at least with regard to the publishing industry.
There’s something to be said for starting out small. Although he might not have wanted to, Ken Toole could’ve self-published. It’s not nearly as glamorous, but if all he really wanted was to see his work in print and in the hands of his readers, it would have been a perfectly acceptable solution. If, on the other hand, he desired the financial success and notoriety that sometimes come with being published by a large, established company such as Simon & Schuster, I would not have been of much help.
I can’t support any plan which relies too heavily on the fickle world of publishing. Ken Toole was brilliant, but he made the mistake of pinning his hopes on an industry in which luck and connections are often more important than talent.
In case you haven’t yet come across the part where I tell you that you won’t always get what you need, allow me to say it again. You really won’t always get what you need — or what you think you need — from the rest of the world. It’s best to accept this reality and learn to depend on yourself.
Now all that’s left to do is appreciate his work and try to learn from his mistakes. Like John Kennedy Toole, you can be brilliant, motivated, and productive, but, please, do leave the giving-up part behind. After all, garden hoses are for watering things and there is plenty of despair around as it is.
From the Trade Paperback edition.